I am a scholar committed to understanding the relationships between society and the production and governance of the built environment. This means that I investigate how actors and institutions from the public sector, the private sector and civic society interact in planning, designing, governing and inhabiting the built environment, both formally and informally. These basic but foundational ideas explain much of my actions as an educator and researcher.
The formal relationships between actors and the built environment I mention above include the development of formal policies and plans that shape our cities and communities. Meanwhile, informal relationships include actions by citizens, private enterprises and sometimes public actors that shape and change the built environment through informal institutions. For Elinor Ostrom (Ostrom, 2015), informal institutions are the “unwritten rules” related to culture, values, informal practices, and inherited worldviews that influence the way by which formal institutions work.
An example of informal institution is the Dutch Polder Model, which is characterised by 3 attributes: collective action, consensus seeking and faith in institutions.
These “rules” or “ways of doing things” are unwritten, but are firmly anchored in a particular history, culture and attitude towards the world, all of them influenced by how space_ a scarce resource_ has been managed in the Netherlands over the centuries. This informal institution influences the way by which decisions are negotiated, plans and policies are shaped and ultimately how society deals with the management, planning and design of space and resources in the country.
I have a multidisciplinary background that includes design, spatial planning and urban/economic geography. This background is the result of a trajectory that started at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of the University of São Paulo, one of the highest ranked architecture and planning courses in Latin America and had stations at the Institut Français d’Urbanisme (later merged with l’Institut d’Urbanisme de Paris to form the new École d’Urbanisme de Paris), the University of Hertfordshire (UK) and finally TU Delft, where I have worked since 2004 (please, see my CV). Upon obtaining my PhD at TU Delft in 2008, I worked as an assistant professor for the chair Spatial Planning and Strategy, led by Professor Vincent Nadin. In 2019, I became Associate Professor of Spatial Planning and Strategy.
Educating the Critical Urbanist
My professional development is mostly reflected in how education in Urbanism has shaped up in the last 10 years. I discuss my experiences and findings,
- With bachelor students in the course Beheer en (Her)Ontwikkeling, part of the Maatschappij, Proces en Praktijk learning trajectory
- With Master students in lectures in the course Research and Design Methodology for Urbanism, which I designed, and earlier in the course Thesis Plan, which I also co-designed
- In contributions to electives and minors (Urban Geography; Cities, Migration & Socio-Spatial Inequality)
- In the course Metropolitan Innovatorsfor the Master program Metropolitan Analysis, Design and Engineering (MADE) at the AMS Institute, which I co-designed with Clemens Driessen (WUR)
- In the post-Master studio Urban Region Networks at the European Masters of Urbanism (EMU), a flagship programme at the faculty, which I lead, and which I have taught since its beginning
- In the PhD Graduate School course Qualitative Research Methods for Architecture and the Built Environment, with a session on Discourse Analysis
- With a graduation studio in Urbanism. One of my main areas of focus is the Global South, a context which I have also explored through co-coordination of the Master graduation studio Complex Cities for many years and now coordinator of the graduation lab Inclusive Cities of the Global South (part of Complex Cities)
My research is also reflected in supervision of Master’s theses. I have supervised more than 85 graduation theses as main mentor or part of a team of mentors.
To date, I have co-supervised 3 PhD candidates, of which two successfully completed their dissertations and one is due to complete their dissertation in 2021.
I have therefore walked the full circle of higher education in the faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment of the TU Delft, and have developed, designed and taught several key courses over the years.
I have initiated and developed the structure, content and teaching methods for a substantial part of the curriculum of the department, while contributing to advance scholarship on design and planning education, with the introduction of innovative content and teaching methods. Examples are the Summer School Planning and Design with Water I describe further in the text, the methodology courses I developed and the elaboration of innovative teaching methods, including gamification of education (the development of serious interactive games) and online education with a COMENIUS grant (obtained with Igor Pessoa), with the coordination of a module in the Rethink the City MOOC, as well participation in several other MOOCS.
As a result, I have published considerably on the integration of academic research skills into design and planning education and on innovative approaches to education (please, see list of publications).
This endeavour was greatly facilitated by a post-doctoral position at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK (2008-2010), as part of the Research into Practice research group, led by Professor Michael Biggs, one of the world’s leading authorities in research into design and the creative arts. This 3-year experience fed into the design of two courses at Bouwkunde: The Research and Design Methodology for Urbanism (5 ECTS), mentioned above, and the course Thesis Plan (6 ECTS), which I developed with Machiel van Dorst and taught for 4 years. Both courses have benefitted from insights on the integration of academic research into design and planning education.
In the last two years, the Faculty has invited me to conduct a workshop on values and ethics for the built environment during the Introduction Week for all its new Master students from all departments. This has been one of the most intense and exciting teaching experiences of my life. This workshop is also a result of my trajectory exploring the topics I mentioned at the beginning of this text.
The discussion on values and ethics for the built environment has fed into several courses and is fully integrated in the methodology courses I teach, with the help from colleagues from TBM, and has resulted in a grant by DDFV (Delft Design for Values platform) that will kick-start the publication of a handbook on spatial justice.
Issues connected to VALUES, ETHICS and SPATIAL JUSTICE are therefore at the centre of my professional and intellectual life.
Key issues for spatial planning in the future: sustainability and social justice
I work in the intersection between spatial planning, design, governance and sustainability, understood in its three crucial dimensions: social, economic and environmental.
My view, following Campbell’s, is that spatial planning and design must engage with “two converging, yet distinct social movements: sustainability and social justice” (Campbell, 2013, p.75). The integration of sustainability and justice is the bedrock for long term, durable sustainability, especially when we consider that for sustainability to exist, its three essential components (environmental, social, and economic) must occur simultaneously (Larsen, 2012).
It is in this convergence that I see the future of spatial planning and my role in the Department of Urbanism. This gap must be urgently addressed, as inequity and unfairness in the distribution of burdens and benefits of development are widely recognised to undermine sustainability. The literature on socio-technical transitions is clear about the need to look at the socio-spatial relations where transitions take place. Most surprisingly, however, socio technical transitions to sustainability mostly fail to incorporate concepts of justice, democracy and redistribution, bedrocks of social sustainability, but rather focus solely on the environmental aspects of sustainability (Campbell, 2013).
The scale and the scope of the transition strategies needed to achieve sustainability demands immediate action from universities to educate future managers, planners and designers of transition strategies that are also spatial strategies. Spatial planning as a discipline and practice has largely ignored the discussion on socio-technical transitions, and there is scope for better integration between the two fields (Coenen, Benneworth, & Truffer, 2012).
In short, much of my research and teaching tries to consider ways of integrating SOCIO-SPATIAL JUSTICE and SUSTAINABILITY.
Promoting integration of sustainability and social justice through spatial planning and design education and research
The issue of how to foster and govern transitions towards sustainability means that local, regional and national authorities need to promote and govern fundamental transformation toward sustainable modes of urbanisation. Issues related to far-reaching transformation of socio technical systems (e.g. energy, water, mobility, housing and so forth) are deeply intertwined with how our cities and regions are planned, designed and built. A fundamental aspect of sustainability transitions are the social structures that support them and the ethical and moral imperative to make these transitions inclusive and fair. Social sustainability is founded on well-functioning political, institutional and legal systems that deliver fair outcomes regarding environmental, economic and social burdens and benefits. These burdens and benefits are often spatially bounded or embedded in spatial structures and infrastructures.
In my work, I use the notion of Spatial Justice to express the fairness in the procedures of planning and designing spaces (procedural spatial justice) and the fairness in the distribution of environmental, economic and social benefits and burdens across space (distributive spatial justice). Spatial justice is a normative concept that gauges environmental, economic and social relationships of fairness and unfairness in space. What makes these notions especially relevant for Urbanism is that they are explicitly bound to space and spatial planning and design. I publicize this exploration on a WEBSITE.
The exploration of the intersection between socio-spatial justice and sustainability in socio-technical transitions has yielded concrete results in the form of a 6 ECTS course for the MADE course at the AMS Institute, the “Metropolitan Innovators” course, developed with Clemens Driessen from Wageningen University and with contributions by Professor Ellen van Bueren, Aksel Ersoy and Julian Barbalata This course is entirely based on the premises described above and explores the intersections between socio-technical transitions toward sustainability, the ecosystems approach and spatial justice, seeking to integrate these three perspectives.
More recently, I have been working on a major Horizon 2020 research proposal titled CIvIC (“Citizens Engagement for Inclusive and Just Cities”), led by colleague Marcin Dabrowski and myself, and to which I have contributed with the main logic of enquiry. It addresses precisely the issue of integration of spatial justice into socio-technical transitions toward sustainability through an innovative methodology based on partnerships between universities, municipalities and businesses centred around ‘Living Labs’, a concept extensively used at AMS, also a partner in this proposal.
CIvIC is a research proposal and has not been granted, but it is an example of the potentials to integrate the issues I described into policy-making and design of the built environment, and exemplifies the type of research I intend to carry forward in the coming years.
A global perspective on sustainable and fair urban development
The issues described in the previous section are crucial everywhere, but most urgent in the Global South, which is urbanising at record rates. The UN-Habitat New Urban Agenda, for instance, recognises the “mutually reinforcing relationship between urbanisation and development, with the aim that they become parallel vehicles for sustainable development” (UN-HABITAT & United Nations, 2017). But this mutually reinforcing relationship is not well explored everywhere, and UN-Habitat wishes to promote it through policy, planning and design instruments contained in the New Urban Agenda. The objectives of the Department of Urbanism align remarkably well with the objectives pursued by UN-Habitat in the New Urban Agenda, and the department can influence and help its implementation.
The relationship with UN-Habitat and the World Urban Campaign (the branch of the UN in charge of promoting the New Urban Agenda) has structured my work in the last three years. Attention to the New Urban Agenda launched in Quito in 2016 (an event I attended) prompted a series of activities in the Department: a lecture series about the NUA given by guest specialists from the UN itself, the Urban Thinkers Campus on Education for the New Urban Agenda (which has been the only Urban Thinkers Campus so far to discuss education for the NUA), and an exhibition about the Sustainable Development Goals held at BK.
These activities led to my participation at the World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur in 2018 with a well-attended special event where I discussed education for the New Urban Agenda. These activities have led me to co-lead the faculty-wide “Africa Initiative” (Professors Dirk van Gameren and Andy van den Dobbelsteen are the project leaders of the Africa Initiative), with a major conference in preparation for March 2019 and a series of smaller events in 2017 and 2018, such as the PrepCon “African Perspectives on Inclusive, Fair and Inclusive Urbanisation”, organised in Addis-Ababa in partnership with EiABC (Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development).
In the area of sustainable urban development in the Global South, a major achievement has been the publication of the Routledge Handbook on Informal Urbanisation, which I edited with Jan van Ballegooijen (Rocco & Ballegooijen, 2018). This is a ground-breaking publication gathering cases from 24 cities in the Global South and is bound to become a key reference in the field. This book has substantially contributed to the formation of a community of authors who discuss informal urbanisation in the global south using the theoretical framework I have developed based on the ideas discussed in this text. This book has spanned a series of guest lectures, round tables and keynote speeches that have significantly extended my research network around the world. Places where I have spoken include MIT, Politecnico di Milano, The University of Copenhagen, The University of São Paulo, Politecnico de Madrid, etc. These experiences have led me to become president of the Netherlands Association of Latin American and Caribbean studies (NALACS) for three years, and to lead tracks at major European conferences, such as AESOP and RC21. More info about my publications can be found on the PURE system. Additional information can be found on ORCID, and SCOPUS.
I have been contributing to the integration of these issues into education at the department, with innovative experiences, such as the Summer School Planning and Design with Water, a summer school for 80 students from all over the world on issues of water management and sustainable planning and design, which I organise in the Department every year. In 2018, we hosted the fifth edition of the summer school, funded by fees and partnerships with Delft Global, the Responsible Innovation Project by TBM and the City of The Hague, as well as contributions from the city of The Hague, the city of Delft, the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, The Delta Programme, ARCADIS and Deltares.
This Summer School plays an important role in introducing the issues I have described above to students from all over the world, expanding the outreach of the Department of Urbanism and effectively contributing for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda, while fostering equal opportunities. From 80 students, 25% attended the summer school with scholarships provided by the school, including scholarships for African students and young professionals, Puerto Rican, Eastern European and Bangladeshi students. In order to foster partnerships with other universities, in 2018 the Summer School hosted 5 teachers from universities in Australia, Brazil, Italy, Kenya, and South Africa, who came to the summer school to learn about its topic and its teaching methods, and the teacher’s programme is expanding again in 2019.
Academic approach and academic leadership
Along the years, I have built an extensive academic network, by attending, organising, chairing and presenting at over 40 international meetings and conferences and have been invited to give keynote speeches at over 15 events. An overview of my public speaking activities can be found HERE and on PURE.
I lead the writing process of the Union for the Mediterranean Strategic Action Plan for Sustainable Urbanisation, a policy framework to be adopted by UfM countries in 2020.
The Union for the Mediterranean is an intergovernmental institution bringing together 43 countries from the EU and the MENA region to promote dialogue and cooperation in the Euro-Mediterranean region. The UfM Working Groups on Urban Regeneration and Housing, in partnership with member states, will develop an Action Plan on Sustainable Urbanisation for the Mediterranean, and a project pipeline under the UfM Urban Agenda of 2017.
TU Delft (SPS) is the lead knowledge partner in this process, in charge of coordinating research that will ground both Action Plans. The Action Plans aims to promote integrated, sustainable, fair and inclusive urban regeneration and development across the Mediterranean region as a means to foster human development, economic prosperity, political stability and overall sustainability.
I have participated in two major externally funded research projects: PLEEC _ Planning for Energy Efficient Cities_ of which I contributed substantially to the development of the work package I was in, and COHESIFY _ Understanding the Impact of EU Cohesion Policy on European Identification, in which I took part as a researcher, with a third research proposal in preparation (CIvIC), which I explained above.
I have written several book chapters, peer-reviewed articles, and publications for a general audience about the topics I mentioned, with a focus on three main issues: the connections between academic research and design and planning education; values, governance and spatial justice; and finally, about urban development in the Global South, as I have explained. My h-index is 5. I recognise I have to improve my publication record in highly ranked peer-reviewed journals, but I’m confident I will be able to do it in the next few years, having laid the foundations to do so.
Ideas around the integration of sustainability and spatial justice are also central to the organisation of conferences with the explicit aim to kick-start exploration of a new topic (e.g. The “Jane Jacobs centennial conference” and the “Cities and Citizenship in Latin American and the Caribbean Conference”, both organised in 2016 and both resulting in publications, (Rocco, 2018; Rocco & Silva, 2018) as well as thematic symposiums such as the UTC and the Education for Water Resilient Cities symposium, held in May 2018.
Communication is central for academic life. My experience as a communications-practiced person has led me to set up the communication strategy for the Spatial Planning group in collaboration with others, including the organisation of seminars, the setting up and management of websites and blogs, the management of social media.
Roberto Rocco, Delft, 10 August 2020 (last updated).
Campbell, S. D. 2013. Sustainable Development and Social Justice : Conflicting Urgencies and the Search for Common Ground in Urban and Regional Planning. Michigan Journal of Sustainability, 1, 75–91. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/mjs.12333712.0001.007
Coenen, L., Benneworth, P., & Truffer, B. 2012. Toward a spatial perspective on sustainability transitions. Research Policy,41(6), 968–979. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2012.02.014
Executive Board TU Delft. 2007. Performance criteria for standard performance for the Associate Professor. Delft.
Larsen, G. L. 2012. An Inquiry into the Theoretical Basis of Sustainability. In J. Dillard, V. Dujon, & M. C. King (Eds.), Understanding the Social Dimension of Sustainability. London: Routledge.
Ostrom, E. 2015. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781316423936
Rocco, R. (Ed.). 2018. Jane Jacobs is Still Here: Jane Jacobs 100, her legacy and relevance in the 21st century. BK Books (TU Delft).
Rocco, R., & Silva, S. da (Eds.). 2018. Cities and Citizenship in Latin America and the Caribbean. Delft: BK Books (TU Delft).
Rocco, R., & Van Ballegooijen, J. 2018. The Routledge Handbook on Informal Urbanization. (R. Rocco & J. Van Ballegooijen, Eds.). London; New York: Routledge.
UN-HABITAT, & United Nations. 2017. New Urban Agenda. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III). https://doi.org/ISBN: 978-92-1-132757-1https://wp.me/P1SMPa-2